The saying goes that behind every great man is a great woman. For Elon Musk – the maverick founder of SpaceX and Tesla who has built an astonishing $250 billion fortune, making him by far the world’s richest man – that woman is his mother, Maye Musk. Elon has been declared Time magazine’s Person of the Year – but, just a few minutes in Maye’s company might convince you that it is actually the 73-year-old supermodel herself who should be receiving the accolade.

She may not have the power to make "the stock market soar or swoon... with a flick of [a] finger", as Time said of her son, but when I meet her in the suite of a London hotel, she has the chutzpah to greet me without a scrap of make-up on (rare in the fashion world); her famous silver hair is brushed back off her face and she’s wrapped in little more than a fluffy white bathrobe.

Musk declares that she is "having the time of my life" in her eighth decade. Over the past five years, she has achieved later-life supermodel status; working with megabrands including Dior and Dolce and Gabbana, starring in shoots for Vogue, being appointed the oldest ever face of make-up label CoverGirl and becoming a septuagenarian style muse.

"You don’t expect to be so in demand in your 70s. I’d have been a crazy lady to imagine this happening to me when I was younger," she laughs. Maye could just as easily be talking about her eldest son’s rise to become one of the world’s most controversial figures, as famed for his ambition to dominate the space race as his mischievous toying with governments and financial institutions, as her own fashion acclaim.

Maye’s humble attitude is undoubtedly down to her struggles earlier in life. In 2020, she published a memoir, A Woman Makes a Plan, in which she spoke for the first time about the abuse she says she suffered at the hands of South African engineer and businessman Errol Musk, her former husband and the father of Elon and his siblings, Kimbal and Tosca.

"My life was hell," she writes, alleging that she was coerced into marriage and first suffered physical abuse on her honeymoon, during which Elon was conceived. "He was cruel in ways that didn’t make sense," she continues. "Throughout my marriage, I was told I was boring, stupid and ugly."

It was only when South African divorce laws were relaxed in 1979 that Maye was able to break free. After that, money was tight and she struggled to make ends meet, working as a dietician and model while supporting herself and her three children alone. Errol, who has yet to comment on the allegations, is estranged from his children.

"I’d advise women to get out of a bad situation quicker than I did, because you suffer a lot if you stay thinking it’s going to change, whether that’s in business or your personal life," she says now. "Many women have said my story gives them hope. We should talk more about [abuse] and shame men who are mean and violent."

Maye tells me about moving to Toronto when her children were teenagers, living in a rent-controlled apartment and struggling to buy clothes or furniture. It was there that she met Julia Perry, who has been her best friend and stylist ever since. "Now I can afford really nice clothes, the designers send them to me. I’m very honoured, but how times have changed. Now we live very comfortably, it’s been a long haul," she adds.

Her tenacity and work ethic have evidently rubbed off on her high-achieving children. Between modelling assignments, Maye spends much of her time supporting them in their endeavours; besides Elon and his quest for world domination, Tosca is a filmmaker and Kimbal is a restaurateur whose flagship project is building "learning gardens" in schools across the US.

"I was at the premiere of Tosca’s movie recently, I was in Berlin for the big opening of Elon’s factory there and I go to the openings of as many of Kibal’s vegetable gardens as I can," she sighs. "I support all three of them on social media, too."

By that she means, lobbying Joe Biden to take more notice of Tesla’s contribution to electric vehicle developments or hashtagging #proudmom when another of Elon’s posts sends shockwaves across the Twittersphere, as he’s done lately with proclamations about cryptocurrency or selling his stocks in Tesla according to whether his followers believe it’s a good idea.

Perry’s brief is to make sure Maye doesn’t "look like a frumpy granny". There seems little chance of that, given her ease in everything from tailoring to elaborate gowns, but she does take her grandparent duties very seriously.

She has 12 grandchildren in total, including Elon’s seven offspring, the youngest of which is his one-year-old son X AE A-Xii (which is pronounced ‘X-Ash-A-12’) with his former partner, singer Grimes. Elon recently claimed there weren’t enough people on the planet and that civilisation would ‘crumble’ if we didn’t start having bigger families.

Musk’s worries for the next generation chime with her son’s. "Being a grandmother makes me a global change activist," she says. "I want my grandchildren to be able to breathe this air. The fossil fuel industry still has a huge amount of money which it uses to prevent this. Let’s hope that the public and youth will keep fighting polluters so that they can live longer."

She never remarried – one message of congratulations posted on social media following Time’s announcement on Monday reads: "You might not be good at picking men but you’re damn good at raising sons (and daughters)." Like her son, Musk is a self-confessed geek who has two master’s degrees, one in dietetics and another in nutritional science – although her love of fashion began at an early age.

"I went to a very conservative Afrikaans university," she recalls. "When I wore my miniskirt, the professor made me put my lab coat over it." She thinks she avoided the sexual abuse suffered by many of her fellow models because she eschewed offers to meet male agents privately, always in a rush to get back to her studies and, later, her children.

Her rise to fame began in her late 50s, when she decided to embrace her natural grey hair and "get a short, edgy cut". After years as a jobbing model, she suddenly found herself booked for campaigns that resulted in "billboards in Times Square and magazine covers... my life changed completely".

Yet none of this appears to have gone to her head. She is genuinely thrilled to be experiencing this glamour, tucking into a tray of sandwiches and confiding her concerns about the incredible outfit she’s going to be wearing to the Fashion Awards later that night. "It’s a skintight catsuit which is quite stunning with a big skirt behind it," she explains. "But I’m going to need two other women to help me go to the loo. I will try not to have any bodily functions for five hours."

The scarlet creation is by Lebanese designer Tony Ward and has been chosen as a show of support for his country, which has been ravaged by recent political instability.

Musk plans to work into her 90s, and looks a picture of vitality – even barefaced. "I follow the flexitarian diet, I don’t do fads, I follow science and common sense," she explains.

"I eat lots of vegetables, wholegrains and good fats, although I do like my cheese as well. If you over-exercise, you start hurting yourself and I’m not a sporty type. I walk my dog three times a day, I do weights and stretches with the TV on, because it’s very boring."

And she has, thus far, avoided tweak-ments. "I have friends who give me the 
card of a plastic surgeon regularly but I’d never given it much thought," she says. "I wouldn’t know where to start, but I haven’t had any requests from clients saying they want me to look younger. They’re booking me for my age."

The Daily Telegraph

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